Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Nature or Nurture?

It is a hot October night in Minnesota. Yes, you read that correctly. It is not typically hot in October in Minnesota, but today it was nearly 90 degrees and as the sun faded into the horizon and as the clouds billowed above cooler temperatures have been invading, but not rapidly enough. My kids tonight all complained about how hot it is, and how they can't sleep and how they can't wait for winter (mark those words for a few weeks from now). It is too hot, and my mind is too alert for me to sleep. My wife often chides me for being able to sleep no matter what and often says as I am drifting off to sleep, "Good night, I love you. hope you sleep well, why I lie here awake." Tonight Claudia is out of town, but I am as insomniacal as she, so I write.

It has been a very strange day in our family. Everything seems akilter. The weather is odd. Our kids seem disoriented from the warmth and the change in routine (when mom is not home things do not go the same way they do as when she is home. You can guess who is the enforcer and who is not). I had a challenging IM "conversation," interspersed with three intense cell phone conversations, with our third-year college son. It all began with his terse IM to me:

Terroryzer: dad facebook is for college kids
BAFletcher: pardon?
Terroryzer: why do u have facebook
BAFletcher: I do not have facebook.
Terroryzer: oh
Terroryzer: well there is somebody with you name adding people
BAFletcher: why do you think i have facebook?
Terroryzer: its pretty funny
BAFletcher: what do you mean?
Terroryzer: somebody has a picture of you and is adding friends on facebook
BAFletcher: and facebook is not only for college students. i know adults who have it.
BAFletcher: And who do you suppose that might be?
Terroryzer: i have no idea

This was the conversation at about 5:00 PM our time. I didn't think too much of it, but curiosity got the best of me, so I hopped on my web browser and discovered that non-students are now able to be on Facebook (at its origin, I believe, it was simply for college students, but the scope has since broadened). I signed myself up for a legitimate Facebook page and looked "myself" up. It was, indeed, a picture of me along with details about our family and my vocation that were too detailed to make me very comfortable.

So a little later I IM'd our son to let him know that I now have a Facebook page and that I wanted to be his "friend." I knew, frankly, that such a request would send him reeling because we have believed for sometime that the persona he wishes us to know and the persona he wishes others to know are two very different identities. While I won't go into all the gory details, we agreed with Kyle three years ago that we would help him finance his education at a private college if it met our criteria, which were fairly specific with regard to spirituality and Christian lifestyle. And I should add, in our own defense, that the University Kyle attends is not in any sense fundamentalist or unwieldlingly conservative. But I digress.

As predicted, my request to become his "friend" created an emotional frenzy I have not been partner to with him in some time. He insisted that there was nothing on his Facebook page that would cause us to trust him less and that for us to question his trustworthiness was tantamount to permanent parental rejection. Or, rather, I think it went something like this, after I indicated that since he already has 248 "friends" who are able to see his profile on a regular basis, I would be unable to send a $1500 tuition payment if he was unable to "befriend" me on Facebook:

Terroryzer: and you will be breaking a contract and lossing a son
BAFletcher: if you have nothing to worry about you have nothing to worry about.
Terroryzer: your choice
BAFletcher: No, Kyle, you will make the choice.
Terroryzer: and I am 100% serious right npow
BAFletcher: You are overreacting to this.
BAFletcher: there must be some very embarrassing stuff on there if it's that big of a deal to you.
Terroryzer: no theres really not
Terroryzer: its just you invade to much of my privacy
BAFletcher: then why would you lose $1475 and your father over it?
Terroryzer: i get no privacy with you
Terroryzer: i would lose you as a dad
Terroryzer: because you give me no privacy
BAFletcher: you said we would lose a son.
Terroryzer: i am intitled to some
BAFletcher: Idon'twantto lose a son.
Terroryzer: thats what I mean
BAFletcher: Privacy is in the midst of 5 or 5 people. Not 248

And so we continued our delightful dialogue for a number of minutes. I won't bore you with needless details, but I wanted Kyle to understand the nature of trust, how it is formed, developed and supported in relationships. The fact is, I'm not that interested in Kyle's Facebook page. I am, however, interested in his response to my request to be his "friend."

BAFletcher: I don't want to be messed with ... I want honesty.
Terroryzer: i want to be trusted
Terroryzer: guess we both have wants
BAFletcher: I've been trusting you a long time ... and now you are making me believe I might have been wrong.
Terroryzer: no u dont
Terroryzer: u say that but u really dont
BAFletcher: So you shouldb e able to trust me enough to invite me to be your friend.
Terroryzer: u go behind my back and use your sources to see if what I say is true
Terroryzer: u really dont believe me straight up
BAFletcher: You're the one that IM'd me about this.
BAFletcher: I didn't initiate this. Your friend [B] did. Talk to him about misusuing trust.

The conversation continued -- Lord, did it continue -- but the conclusion is that I am now a friend of Kyle's on Facebook. And I probably won't even bother to look at his profile and wall all that much, but I want him to have some sense of accountability, to know that even at nineteen years of age his parents are concerned with his continuing moral development and that what he purports to be true on Facebook needs to be the same story he tells us. He is caught in that time of identity development where he is not sure who he is and is doing his best to play at least two fields, so I struggle with that. I would rather, I think, that he be one or the other -- positive or negative -- and be honest with me about it than to lead me to believe something that may or may not be true.

And, as usual, his mother has pegged the issue quite well. Her contention, and I agree, is that this really is a spiritual issue. He is trying to figure out how to integrate in his life what his parents (who have only been his parents from the age of 11 to the present, a mere eight years) have sought to build into his life and what those around him are inviting him to believe. It is a decision that he will need to make for himself, but his parents will continue to press him.

Which brings me to the point of this blog, albeit in a circuitous fashion. Today I attended a very interesting lecture at Gustavus Adolphus College's annual Nobel Conference. Today's speaker, J. Michael Bishop, 1989 Nobel laureate in physiology/medicine, gave a remarkably relevant lecture on the human genome project. While much of the biological depth is lost on me (I'm much more of a Humanities-oriented individual myself), what he had to say about nurture versus nature captivated me.

He predicts that one of the outcomes of the human genome project (in which every genetic code will eventually be mapped and identified) is that we will finally have an answer to the age-old nature versus nurture theory. He was unwilling to say what the outcome might be, but he was clear that genetic research leads him to believe that the reason any of us do what we do is not related simply to genes, nor is it primarily attributable to environment. It is, rather, a deeply complicated, complex weave (my words, not his) of both that result in how we become in our lives. The hope for me in his comments is this. In the past few years I have migrated rather dramatically in my own mind to the "nature" side of the equation. After years and years of careful, intentional, deliberate and committed work with my children, the frustration level reached the point for me that I figuratively raised my hands in exasperation and said, "It's genetic, and there's very little I can do about it." While I have continued to love my children, I began to slip into a helpless mode of beieving very little of what I've tried to do has mattered, especially in the lives of my older children (who have been with us the least time).

Bishop's talk today, helps me to believe that there is yet power in environment. Genes hold strong sway in all of our lives, but environment makes more a difference than we may ever fully understand. If I understood him correctly, Bishop also put forth the idea that genetic impulses and interactions are not static (that is, unchanging) but that they are dynamic (changes occur within the genes and further influence other systems in the body). This is hopeful to me, and it renews my desire to believe that genes may not hold all the answers to the eventual outcomes of my children's lives.

So, Kyle, although you will likely never read this -- but hey, maybe I could post it or its web address on your facewall now? -- be assured of at least this one thing. Until the day I die -- and maybe not even after that -- I will do all I can to be a father that influences, urges and reminds you that you are a much better person than you may want others to think you are. And while you will make the choices you feel you need to make in your life, your father will never abandon you -- even when you threaten, cajole and insist on it.

Nature or nurture -- birth parents or adoptive -- your years at home with us or your relative independence today and in the future -- yes, my son. All of the above.


hopelessnotserious said...

I really don't understand why you would tell your 19 y/o college junior that he has to give you access to his facebook page or you will not pay his tuition. It seems that, at a time in his life when he working on developing an independent identity, you are forcing him not only to become who you want him to be, but to reveal to you part of his process, which can be excruciatingly painful for an adolescent/young adult. I don't agree with your requirement that he pick a college that you approve of, but I respect your decision in that area. But now that he is there, why require more than that he maintain his good standing, academically and behaviorally? The parent of adolescents and young adults myself, I would never jeopardize my child's future by threatening to withdraw financial support for college, unless s/he demonstrated that s/he wasn't ready to use my support well--on the path of his/her own choosing. Both my children have facebook pages, and I have never asked to look at them--instead, I've talked with them frankly about what should and should not be posted there, and what risks they run (NOT loss of my support!) if they don't follow my advice. I just don't understand why, as an adoptive parent especially, you would make any kind of threat to withdraw from your child.

Bart said...

Well, I'm not sure you understand the full context, nor is that essential. We did not require our son to choose a college of our choice. He had the option to choose any college he liked, but we agreed to help him financially if he chose one that supported our values. He was free to choose, and he chose the option that involved our helping him finance his education. The Facebook situation has been all about trust. If our son wishes us to support him financially (there has never been a question about whether or not we would support him emotionally ... it is he that threatens to "leave" us, not we him) we expect him to fulfill his end of the bargain. His end of the bargain is that he will study hard (which he does), live in a way that supports our family's value system (which he nearly always does), and maintain connection with us.

The issue at hand regards his friend who decided to place my photo and my personal identity on Facebook as a joke. My vocation is particularly vulnerable to pernicious attacks, so it was my son's friend who opened the door to the whole Facebook issue. Part of my strategy in asking him what I did is to help him realize the significance of what shows up on Facebook. He, like so many his age, unfortunately view Facebook as a private venue. It really is not, as many recent news reports have confirmed.

We continue, after eight years, to diligently help our son with his attachment issues. He acknowledges that he has attachment issues and as a result of this particular interchange has expressed sincere appreciation for our family's values, his parents and his future.

Our son has decided to NOT follow our advice on numerous occasions; we understand that to be part of the developmental process toward adulthood. But, we are unwilling to financially fund choices that are clear violations of our values. When our family is making significant financial sacrifices for our son to be in the college he is, we really expect him to keep his end of the bargain.

Our son is free at any time to select a college that better reflects a way of life he wishes to pursue. He really wants to be where he is, so we continue to support him.

In no case would our withdrawal of financial support be tantamount to an emotional cut-off. If that were our agenda, the cut-off would have occured a long time ago.

hopelessnotserious said...

Really, though, could your son go to college without your financial support? I know my kids could not.

I had a similar dilemma when one of mine was applying to college. Initially, I said that I would not pay for her to attend a Catholic college, as I did not want to support the Catholic church, financially or otherwise, and I was concerned about what she would and would not be exposed to in such a setting. However, after some serious thought, I relented, and told her that I would support her financially (and emotionally, of course) wherever she chose to go to school.

I struggled again when another child told me that he wanted to go to body piercing school after high school. At first, I said no, I wouldn't pay for it. But he demonstrated that I had no real argument against it, and again, eventually I relented (but he ended up choosing something different).

I respect your struggles and your choices, but ever since my parents cut off my financial support for college when I got married at the age of eighteen, I have felt strongly that parents have a responsibility to see beyond the choices their children make as new adults, and continue to hold the long view of enabling them to become fully independent adults.

Bart said...

Well, actually, yes our son could go to college without our financial assistance. He could very well be living in our home right now, room and board free, and complete his Bachelor's degree at the very fine University of Minnesota branch which is 1.5 miles from our home. Financial aid would more than cover his tuition expenses if that were his choice.

But I suspect the differences you and I have on the matter are less pragmatic and more philosophical. You do not state in your post if you are an adoptive parent or a parent by birth. We are adoptive parents and not parents by birth, so perhaps our frame of reference is limited or warped.

We have learned years ago with this son that we had to be very clear (much clearer than I would have initially liked) about everything. To do less only contributed to his sophisticated manipulation, already present at age eleven, and the cause for his rejection from at least two foster placements, one of which told him they would adopt him and then summarily dumped him at a new foster home with no explanation.

We have stood with him over these years and will continue to do so. We have stuck by him when his own decisions have gotten him into difficult situations. In two years we will have been the most consistent adults for the longest period of time he has ever experienced.

I hear what you are saying about your own experience at the age of eighteen, which is, indeed, regrettable. If you will re-read my final couple of paragraphs in the original post I think you will see that my intention is not now nor has ever been to "cut him off."

As I see the young man he is becoming I can't help but believe (and he affirms this himself) that our structure, high expectations, clear guidelines and consistent emotional support have something to do with what will be his eventual success in life.